Just reading statistics about the number of people in the United States currently living with Alzheimer’s disease – 6 million, or 1 in 9 adults aged 65 or older, according to the Alzheimer’s Association – is enough to make you want take immediate action to prevent cognitive decline. But where do you start?
These septuagenarians say they feel mentally sharp thanks to some key habits, most of which they’ve had for decades. And neuroscientists say these seniors’ tactics actually carry a lot of weight in helping stave off memory loss and cognitive problems down the line.
Joel Slaven, a 78-year-old dentist from Los Angeles, says exercise has been a part of his life for many years. And yes, the movement not only strengthens your muscles, but also your brain.
“I’ve been a long-distance cyclist for 35 years,” says Slaven. “I also do vigorous walking and use a rowing machine while using light wrist weights. Much of what I’ve read about brain activity seems to be fitness related.
Courtesy of Joel Slaven
He’s right: Exercise is so important for cognitive health because it keeps the heart and blood vessels healthy, says Raphi Wald, Psy.D., a neuropsychologist at the Marcus Neuroscience Institute at Boca Raton Regional Hospital. from Baptist Health. “The healthier your heart and blood vessels are, the better they continue to feed the brain with the oxygen and nutrition it needs to thrive,” Wald says.
Being active not only helps prevent cognitive disease, but exercise also helps fight typical age-related brain damage, says Dr. Joel Salinas, a dementia neurologist, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Neurology at NYU Langone and chief medical officer at Isaac Health, an online memory clinic. Tiny scars resembling paper cuts are often found on imaging, such as an MRI, of most aging brains (more so for those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or who smoke) indicating damage. However, “the more active you are throughout your life, the less likely you are to develop these kinds of brain changes,” says Salinas.
Make Meaningful Connections
Slaven often trains with his wife or daughter because he says “my close family relationships make me very happy,” but the brain health benefits go even deeper than anecdotal joy. In fact, science shows that these kinds of meaningful connections are another key factor that can have a big impact on your brain health over time.
“Whether through the mechanism of mental simulation, stress reduction, or engagement in healthier lifestyles, social engagements reduce the risk of developing dementia,” Salinas says.
When Terry Lieber, 77, a retired teacher from Melville, NY, moved into a community of over 55, she quickly introduced herself to a group of women walking around and they invited Lieber to join them. . “Since then, I walk with them almost every morning,” she says. “We talk a lot and discuss books. I also started playing pickleball, which helps me connect with others, which is so important.
Courtesy of Terry Lieber
Through her own research, Salinas found that people who have emotionally supportive relationships also had higher levels of BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a molecule correlated with high cognitive reserve, which is the ability to your brain to find clear neural pathways for information to flow in and out.
Additionally, “people who specifically have a listener available most or all of the time are much more likely to have a cognitive age about four years younger than their chronological age,” he says of his findings published in Open JAMA Network.
Lieber has various ways of socializing, saying, “I joined my local library, took classes, and attended functions there. I attend cooking and computer classes. I even took Canasta lessons. I play cards every week and I really appreciate the women who play. But, if you’re struggling to find social outlets, the good news is that “it’s not necessarily about having a ton of social connections as much as having some social connection,” Salinas explains. According to a 2018 study published in Gerontology journals.
learn something new
Classes not only provide interpersonal connection, but allow you to learn something new, which unlike doing the same crossword puzzle every day, means you engage the brain more and will then lead to growth of new pathways and connections, says Salinas. Taking a dance class is a great way to reap these benefits by ticking off multiple brain health boxes at once. “You learn something new, it provides social engagement, and there’s physical activity,” he says.
For Linda Julie Castro, 76, a retiree from San Diego, Calif., a new hobby that has challenged her mind is art. “I love to draw and paint,” says Castro. “I didn’t realize I could paint until I retired and my to-do list came out. Painting takes focus – thinking about what color to use, where to put that color and how I am always learning more.
Activities such as painting — or gardening as is the case for Mozelle Harding, 72, a retired stained glass designer from San Diego, Calif. — aren’t just healthy brain habits because of their creativity , but doing things that bring you joy also helps reduce stress. Chronic stress can negatively impact cognitive health over time through hormonal changes, inflammation and structural alterations in the brain, says Louisa Nicola, neurophysiologist and human performance expert at Momentous, a brand of performance nutrition.
Courtesy of Mozelle Harding
Specifically, stress increases production of the hormone cortisol, which studies have shown is associated with poor cognition, memory, and executive functioning. Stress also triggers inflammation throughout the body, which research shows can contribute to cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases, Nicola adds. According to a study published in Neuropsychopharmacology.
“Being quiet in the garden, watching the birds in the birdbath and feeders, allows me to escape and focus on something in my Zen space,” says Harding. While it’s impossible to eliminate all stress, establishing habits, such as spending more time outdoors and meditating, can help lower your overall stress levels and do a lot of good. to your brain.
Reduced stress can also lead to better sleep. People with an unmanaged sleep problem are at a higher risk of developing dementia and are more likely to show signs of early biological changes in the brain specifically linked to Alzheimer’s disease, Salinas says. “Getting into a routine that provides a regular sleep routine gives your brain the best chance to thrive,” Wald adds. Healthy sleep habits include following a consistent wake and sleep schedule, maintaining a dark and calming bedroom, limiting caffeine and large meals near bedtime, avoiding phone or other technology at night and adequate activity during the day, depending on the centre. for disease control and prevention.
Eat for brain health
As with most things in health, you can’t forget about the power of your diet. Slaven has been a vegetarian since his sixties. “As a lung cancer survivor and someone who’s had heart bypass surgery, keeping my cardiovascular system free of plaque is critical, and that applies to brain health as well,” he says. . Consuming a diet rich in essential nutrients, especially omega-3 fatty acids, can positively influence cognitive function and help preserve mental acuity, Nicola explains.
The MIND or “Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay” diet is often recommended, as it combines aspects of the Mediterranean diet and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet and encourages you to eat foods associated with better brain health, such as antioxidant-rich berries, fiber-rich leafy greens and whole grains, and lean protein sources like turkey and chicken, and limit foods high in saturated and trans fats, which are linked to inflammation and heart disease, two known risk factors for dementia.